Sápmi: The different shades of blue represent different regions; South-Sámi, Lule-Sámi, North-Sámi, and East Sámi.

Photo: Suneson, A

The Sámi and Sápmi

The Sámi people are recognized as Europe’s only indigenous people.  They have traditionally taken part in reindeer herding for subsistence purposes.  Now reindeer herding has turned into a more profitable enterprise.  The grazing lands encompass central to northern Norway, Sweden, northern Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, which together make up Sápmi.  Having dealt with enormous challenges from colonialism and competing land uses, only about 10% of Sámi still herd reindeer (Brännlund & Axelsson, 2011; Mathiesen et al., 2013).  The impacts of climate change now work in conjunction with existing challenges working to further stress this important livelihood (Roturier et al., 2009, Riseth et al., 2011, Mathiesen et al., 2013).

Reindeer Herding, Husbandry, and Pastoralism: Herding is the controlled movement of animals in terrain while husbandry denotes that a profit is obtained from this activity. Pastoralism is incorporates both of these activities (Brännlund & Axelsson, 2011).

Pasture: The many ecosystems and patchwork of forests that create the Arctic and sub-Arctic land in Sápmi.  The word pasture also includes the many effects that different types of snow and weather have on grazing (Roturier & Roué, 2009).

Video: eskilhardt

Circumpolar and Sápmi Impacts

The Arctic has warmed significantly within the last century and is expected to continue to warm at a faster rate than the global average (AMAP, 2011; IPCC, 2012; Arctic Council, 2013; AMAP, 2017).

Impacts (IPCC, 2012; AMAP, 2017) 

  • Less predictable weather
  • Severe storms 
  • Sea level rise 
  • Changing melt/freeze patterns of bodies of water
  • Changes in snow type and timing
  • Increasing shrub growth at higher latitudes and elevations 

Sámi herders experience more rain during winter months.  This rain causes rain-crusts within the snowpack that threaten access to reindeer food sources on the ground and hampers access to other foraging grounds (Roturier & Roué, 2009; Riseth et al., 2011; IPCC, 2012).  River freeze-thaw patterns decrease the ability to which herders and their reindeer are able to travel (IPCC, 2012).  In 2013, on the Yamal Peninsula of Russia, herders lost 22% of their population when 61,000 reindeer died in a single season due to rain on snow events (Forbes, et al., 2015).


Exposure and Vulnerability

Reindeer herding faces challenges from natural resource extraction, societal pressures, and climate change.  The industry is vulnerable, yet herders have adapted and continue to adapt in order to maintain their distinct culture (Brännlund and Axelsson, 2011).

Climatic Vulnerabilities

  • Reindeer can die if they ingest too much ice in their diet caused by rain on snow events.
  • Reindeer herding is not a subsistence activity - herders must produce surplus meat in order to support themselves.  In Norway, in 2004, the mean annual income of a herder was just $19,000 (Tyler et al., 2007).  In Sweden, the majority of household income does not come from herding but as second income (Furberg et al., 2011).
  • Changing snow conditions and thinner river and lake ice inhibit mobility (IPCC, 2012, AMAP, 2017).

Industry and Social Pressures

  • Herding requires large tracts of land.  In Sapmi, herders compete with other industries such as mining, forestry, wind, and hydropower (Brännlund & Axelsson, 2011; Magga et al., 2011; Horstkotte & Roturier 2013).

A herder moving reindeer to the summer grazing grounds in mountains.

Photo: Montgomery, H

"No Mines in Jokkmokk!" Sami residents protest a proposed mine with signs and flag in hand.

Ferrari, E

When snow conditions are poor, reindeer pastoralists are forced to turn to supplemental feeding.

Photo: Fernqvist, F

A Sámi man in Norway with his reindeer and snowmobile.

Photo: Wallace, S

Adapting to Create Resilience

Sápmi’s climate is described as being in “ceaseless motion.”  Sámi pastoralists continually adapt to this environment and the many pressures put on them by colonialism and competing land uses in Sápmi (Brännlund & Axelsson, 2011).

Adaptation Steps

  • Flexible use of pastures: The ability to herd more and less intensively (denser herds) and to have the ability to move reindeer to a plethora of other grazing grounds depending on changing snow and weather conditions or even land use of other industries.
  • Supplemental feeding: Herders have started to incorporate supplemental feeding during bad grazing conditions.
  • Technology: Herders now use snowmobiles, all-terrain-vehicles, GPS collars, cell-phones, radios, and trucks.  These work to make reindeer pastoralism a more viable industry.
  • Strong social networks within households, families, Sámi villages, districts, and countries provide security, make opportunities for knowledge sharing, cooperation and even business prospects (Brännlund & Axelsson, 2011).


Gunnar Ohlson graduated from St. Lawrence University in the spring of 2017 with a combined major in environmental studies and government.  As a culminating project at St. Lawrence, he studied traditional ecological knowledge and its important role in climate change research on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska for the AKSIK project.  Gunnar first became interested in indigenous peoples of the Arctic as a foreign exchange student in Hudiksvall, Sweden, and later as an intern at the Centre for Sámi Research of Umeå University.  This narrative page was developed for Dr. Jon Rosales' Adaptation to Climate Change course.

Works Cited

AMAP, 2011: Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA): Climate Change and the Cryosphere. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway.

AMAP, 2017: Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA): Summary for policy makers. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway.

Arctic Council, 2013: Arctic Resilience Interim Report 2013. Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden..

Brännlund, I., & Axelsson, P. (2011). Reindeer management during the colonization of Sami lands: A long-term perspective of vulnerability and adaptation strategies. Global Environmental Change21(3), 1095-1105.

Forbes, B. C., Kumpula, T., Meschtyb, N., Laptander, R., Macias-Fauria, M., Zetterberg, P., & Verdonen, M. (2015, December). Sea Ice, Hydrocarbon Extraction, Rain-on-Snow and Tundra Reindeer Nomadism in Arctic Russia. In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts.

Furberg, M., Evengård, B., & Nilsson, M. (2011). Facing the limit of resilience: perceptions of climate change among reindeer herding Sami in Sweden. Global health action4.

Horstkotte, T., & Roturier, S. (2013). Does forest stand structure impact the dynamics of snow on winter grazing grounds of reindeer (Rangifer t. tarandus)?. Forest Ecology and Management291, 162-171.

IPCC, 2012: Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V. Barros, T.F. Stocker, D. Qin, D.J. Dokken, K.L. Ebi, M.D. Mastrandrea, K.J. Mach, G.-K. Plattner, S.K. Allen, M. Tignor, and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, 582 pp.

Magga, O.H., S.D. Mathiesen, R.W. Corell, and A. Oskal, 2011: Reindeer Herding, Traditional Knowledge and Adaptation to Climate Change and Loss of Grazing Land. Part of the Ipy Ealát Consortium, the Ealát Project (Ipy # 399), Reindeer Herders Vulnerability Network Study: Reindeer Pastoralism in a Changing Climate, A Project led by Norway and the Association of World Reindeer Herders (WRH) in Arctic Council, Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, Kautokeino, Norway.

Mathiesen, S.D., B. Alfthan, R. Corell, R.B.M. Eira, I.M.G. Eira, A. Degteva, K.I. Johnsen, A. Oskal, M. Roué, M.N. Sara, E.R. Skum, E.I. Tury, and J.M. Turi, 2013: Strategies to enhance the resilience of Sámi reindeer husbandry to rapid changes in the Arctic. In: Arctic Resilience Interim Report 2013. Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden, pp. 109-112.

Riseth, J. Å., Tømmervik, H., Helander-Renvall, E., Labba, N., Johansson, C., Malnes, E., ... & Schanche, A. (2011). Sámi traditional ecological knowledge as a guide to science: snow, ice and reindeer pasture facing climate change. Polar Record47(03), 202-217.

Roturier, S., & Roué, M. (2009). Of forest, snow and lichen: Sámi reindeer herders’ knowledge of winter pastures in northern Sweden. Forest Ecology and Management258(9), 1960-1967.

Tyler, N. J. C., Turi, J. M., Sundset, M. A., Bull, K. S., Sara, M. N., Reinert, E., ... & Martello, M. L. (2007). Saami reindeer pastoralism under climate change: applying a generalized framework for vulnerability studies to a sub-arctic social–ecological system. Global Environmental Change17(2), 191-206.


eskilhardt. (2010, March 7) Rain on snow – EnvironmentalAtlas.net. (Video file) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KEYWNV4yVA&feature=youtu.be

Ferrari, E. The Sámi Way (People Protesting). Retrieved from http://lenscratch.com/2013/12/elisa-ferrari-the-sami-way/

Fernqvist, F. Changes in Consistency of Snow Causes Problems for Reindeer Herders in Scandinavia. (Supplemental feeding) Retrieved from http://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2010/11/23/changes-in-consistency-of-snow-causes-problems-for-reindeer-herders-in-scandinavia/

Montgomery, H. Klimatförändringarna Hotar den Svenska Renskötseln (Herder on snowmobile and road). Retrieved from http://www.etc.se/inrikes/klimatforandringarna-hotar-den-svenska-renskotseln

Suneson, A. Sapmi: Samernas Land (A Map of Sapmi). Retrieved from http://www.samer.se/1002

Wallace, S. Aslak Tore Eira is a Sámi reindeer herder…(Man, reindeer and snowmobile). Retrieved from http://focusingonwildlife.com/news/dodging-wind-farms-and-bullets-in-the-arctic/